updated 06:55 pm EDT, Thu July 9, 2009
Over one-third of mobile phones are expected to integrate accelerometers by 2010, according to the research firm iSuppli. Widespread adoption of the Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) sensors is being driven by popular devices such as Apple's iPhone and the recently-launched Palm Pre. Although the trend continues to develop in the smartphone segment, the technology is also being used in simpler devices.
The iPhone is one of the first devices to utilize an accelerometer for a wide range of functions and input. The 3-axis motion sensor enables the device to switch screen orientation, or move through tracks as it is shaken. Many of the third-party games use motion input for control, instead of a dedicated joystick or input buttons.
Sony Ericsson shows one of the highest rates of accelerometer integration, with 18 out of 19 new phones using the technology. Companies following a similar path include Samsung and LG, among others.
Motion sensors represent a fraction of the new MEMS components utilized in mobile devices. Apple included a magnetometer in the iPhone 3GS, effectively allowing the handset to detect a heading without relying on point-to-point vectors. The electronic compass functionality works to orient a map before the user even starts moving.
Aside from basic control and orientation input, the accelerometer is likely to be used in a variety of new ways in the near future. Apple has applied for patents relating to technology for sports such as martial arts or skiing. Sensors could track the placement and impact force of strikes during a martial arts match, either for training purposes or scoring. Skiers could use the system to record jump heights, rotations, air time and other factors.
Other Apple patent applications detail systems for tracking biometric data such as heart rate or body temperature. The company has submitted filings for technology involving pico-projectors in mobile devices, potentially the iPhone or iPod touch. Advanced sensors might also be used to detect a gaze and wake a device only when the user focuses on it.
Along with the continued adoption of accelerometers, iSuppli predicts the industry for MEMS components will grow from $460 million last year to over $1.6 billion in 2013. The company also expects technology such as gyroscopes and projectors to hit the market as early as 2010.